Nonprofit group sees ‘no real financial accountability’ in Texas public schools

cash register

If you don’t think there is a deeply rooted ideological battle going on between your public education system and the rest of the world, we recommend you take this little test.

But first, a little background. The Texas Education Accountability Project issued a report it titled No Financial Accountability, the result of two years of trying to make head or tail of the spending of tax dollars on and by Texas public schools.

“What we found was startling – namely, there is no real financial accountability for K-12 public education in Texas,” the report’s executive summary says. “In a system of public education that in aggregate spent nearly $55 billion in the 2008-2009 school year and which increased spending per student by nearly 63% over (the) preceding decade (almost twice the rate of inflation), it is almost impossible for any average citizen who does not work for a school district to have any idea of how taxpayer funds are used.”

Mark Hurley, founder of the nonprofit project he says is also nonpartisan, expressed a finely calibrated exasperation in the report and in his comments to the San Antonio Express-News.

The Legislature and public have no real way of knowing what is appropriate spending because no measurable objectives and no metrics to test the public school system exist, Hurley says.

How are the Texas courts to decide the lawsuits covering more than 500 school districts complaining that they have been chronically underfunded?

“We call this the uninformed being evaluated by the equally uninformed,” Hurley, CEO of a private equity investment firm in Dallas, told the Express-News. “No one outside the school district actually can understand where the money is going. This is not a fault of the school districts. This is a structural failure.”

The phrase “impossible for any average citizen,” from the executive summary is key. Impenetrable enough for those who have tried to unlock the secrets of public school finance, how districts decide what are the right number of teachers or administrators, or hack their way through the Texas Education Agency data thicket.

Now here’s the challenge, as recommended by TexasISD.com, the Web page for Texas school officials. Joe Smith, executive director of the site and a retired Hudson ISD school superintendent, suggests first reading the comments of Gwen Santiago, executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials, in a story about the Accountability Project report by the Austin American-Statesman.

When asked to read the report and offer her opinion, Santiago pronounced the financial dealings of the school districts readily apparent for all to see.

“They didn’t do their research very well,” Santiago told the Statesman.

How can this be when the schools and the state invest so much time and money in a labyrinthine tunnel pouring out to the Texas Education Agency? Lori Taylor, a public policy professor at Texas A&M University, told the Statesman an expert might understand.

“However, for the concerned citizen with less computing power, the flood of data is not very informative,” Taylor says.

As Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Administrators, offered to the Express-News:

“The current system of tracking education funds is no doubt complicated, but no more complicated than the school finance system itself,” she said.

Now that you’ve finished, do you understand public school finance any better? If not, ask yourself which experts you believe.

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Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo 'Old Cash Register' by flickr user Jo Jakeman, used via a Creative Commons license.